A thread on the composition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot by “Uncle” Wallis Willis and “Aunt” Minerva Willis, enslaved people of African descent owned by Britt Willis, a Choctaw citizen. (Thread)
“Uncle” Wallis Willis and “Aunt” Minerva Willis were owned by Britt Willis in Holly Springs, Mississippi and when Britt and his wife walked the Trail of Tears following the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit, Wallis and Minerva were amongst the 300 slaves they forced along the trail (1).
A side note here: Many people don’t know this, but thousands of enslaved people were forced to walk the Trail of Tears with their enslavers from the “Five Civilized Tribes” (Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Nations). Painting in above tweet by Elizabeth Janes.
According to historian Murray R. Wickett, Black enslaved people had “possibly the highest mortality rates” among the relocated Indigenous people. This history is under-studied(Wickett, Contested Territory: Whites, Native Americans, and African Americans in Oklahoma 1865-1907, 4).
Back to Wallis and Minerva Willis. Following their forcible relocation on the Trail of Tears, their enslaver forced them to work on his plantation in Doaksville, Oklahoma, where they worked along the Red River. There are two different documented stories of the origin of the song.
Frances Banks, the granddaughter of Wallis and Minerva, reported that they “would pass the time by singing while dey toiled away in de cotton fields. Grandfather was a sweet singer. He made up songs and sung'em.”
Jimmie Kirby, the granddaughter of their enslaver Britt Willis, listed a specific month, year, and setting: “Mama said it was on a hot August day in 1840. They were hoeing the long rows of cotton in the rich bottomland field. No doubt [Wallace] was very tired. They worked in ...
the fields from sun-up to sundown. And sundown was a long way off. South of the field, he could see the Red River shimmering in the sun. Can’t you just imagine that suddenly Uncle Wallace was tired of it all?” (2,3)
Wallace and Minerva would also sing slave spirituals while working in the Spencer Academy, a Choctaw boys’ school. Wallace and Minerva’s enslaver would often hire them out to work in the school and the songs became favorites of the Choctaw students at the Academy.
“Aunt” Minerva and “Uncle” Wallace were often asked to perform their slave spirituals for non-Black students at night. These forced performances are an example of the commodification of the art created by enslaved people for non-Black entertainment and consumption. (4)
“Uncle” Wallace and “Aunt” Minerva’s “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” became extremely popular at the school, as well as their songs “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” "Steal Away to Jesus," "I'm A-Rollin,” and "The Angels Are A-Comin.” These songs are still popular today across the globe.
When Rev. Alexander Reid, a reverend from Scotland, became the superintendent of the school, the Willis’ songs became a favorite of his and his family. Reid eventually taught the songs--from memory--to the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1871. (5)
Minerva and Wallace’s songs were performed across America and Europe by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. You can still listen to a recording of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” from 1909, which included some formerly enslaved singers on YouTube here: . (6)
When analyzing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” there is clearly sorrow in the song. The song would be modified across the country, eventually even being transformed in some places to “Swing Low, Sweet Harriet” (after Harriet Tubman), becoming a guide for escaping slavery. (7)
However, in the song, there may also be some clear references and allusions to the experience of Wallace and Minerva as slaves on the Trail of Tears.

“Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home"
Through removal, they were displaced from their original territory in Mississippi. These lyrics could have been referring to that specific removal, expressing the sorrow of being forcibly removed from their original home in Mississippi.
The Trail of Tears also led to widespread death and illness. Perhaps in singing “I'm sometimes up, I'm sometimes down
Coming for to carry me home
But still my soul feels heavenly bound
Coming for to carry me home,”
Minerva and Wallace were referring to the hopelessness of ...
seeing fellow slaves die while on the Trail of Tears and the widespread and far-reaching disease and illness slaves experienced. Bear in mind that these lyrics still were applicable to slaves across the US, who experienced their own forms of hopelessness and "heaviness."
In analyzing their other songs, they repeatedly mourn for a lost home. This can most certainly refer to a spiritual “home” and escape from bondage; however, their specific history as enslaved people of Afro-Indigenous descent has long been ignored in analyzing their spirituals.
in summary, Afro-Indigenous people have been central to creating cultural milestones in the Black community across the United States. Choctaw Freedpeople--even in their position in Indian Territory--created music that hits home for Black folks and other POC globally.
You can follow @ChoctawFreedmen.
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